Small Talk: White Nile still faces Total war over Sudan oil rights

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The Independent Online

White Nile edges closer to tying up its controversial oil deal in newly-autonomus South Sudan.

White Nile edges closer to tying up its controversial oil deal in newly-autonomus South Sudan. Phil Edmonds, the former England spin bowler-turned-serial chairman, and his partner Andrew Groves flew out to neighbouring Kenya on Saturday for talks with the nine-man ruling council of the South Sudanese government-in-waiting. The aim is to sign a detailed business plan by the end of tomorrow, but it remained unclear yesterday whether all nine could be pinned down in time.

The detailed plan has been demanded by the Stock Exchange before it will allow White Nile shares to return from suspension. But the Stock Exchange is not the only adversary that Messrs Edmonds and Groves must overcome. Total, the French oil giant, continues to maintain its claim over the area that the South Sudanese are licensing to White Nile.

The peace deal that ended the civil war included the agreement to respect all previous oil deals, but a member of the new southern government, Costello Garang Ring, in London last week, was insistent that Total had blown its chance of hanging on to the exploration rights it first bought in the Eighties from the central government in Khartoum. John Garang, leader of the south, refused to meet French government officials at a development conference in Norway last week, he said.

However, Total - and this is very curious - says it is "continuing to develop a relationship with officials in the south of Sudan, continuing to talk to them and to explain our position". A spokesman said meetings had been held in the past two weeks.

This is not a resolvable contractual dispute in the Western sense. It might be settled in a new north-south petroleum commission to be set up under the peace deal, but it is politics and money that will talk louder than any pieces of paper signed to date. White Nile finds a positive straw in the wind. There have been riots in Khartoum this month as the government-dominated students' union protested against France's support for a United Nations resolution demanding war crimes trials over atrocities in Darfur. Khartoum officials have condemned France, suggesting a cooling relationship with one of its old international allies, and weakening the diplomatic ties that might encourage Khartoum to fight for Total's claims in the south.

Weston values

More than 2,000 small shareholders were left with apparently nothing when Weston Medical shares were suspended and the company called in administrators in February 2003. Weston was a little medical technology company trying to develop a needle-free injection, one which could shoot a drug in through the skin at high speed. It didn't make enough progress before disillusioned investors turned off the taps.

Two years on and its creditors have been paid, so the attention of the administrator at KPMG has turned to salvaging some value for those remaining shareholders. Weston is now a shell company and, renamed WGP1, has just appointed two directors and hired Nabarro Wells as an adviser for a new deal. An announcement is expected next month.

Talia eyes flotation

Keep an eye out for Talia Technology, a 14-year-old Israeli company whose "opthalmic imaging products" have grown to have sales of £3m last year. Its machines scan the back of the eye and generate a 3D image of the retina in order to diagnose glaucoma and other sight problems associated with old age or diabetes. Now it is listing on AIM, raising £10m and valuing the company at £30m on flotation.

Talia is on course to double sales this year and then to break even in 2006, so most of the cash will be used to extend the technology into the stroke market (reading the size and number of blood vessels at the back of the eye can give an indication of a person's propensity to suffer a stroke) and the vision correction market. Code Securities is Talia's adviser for the float.

Only Solitaire

Solitaire acts as a mangaging agent on blocks of flats, looking after the communal areas on behalf of landlords. It also collects ground rents from leaseholders, taking a cut. It has proved a solid, dependable business and a worthy investment for the long term.

Results today could show a jump of more than 30 per cent in pre-tax profits. Although developers may be taking longer to sell flats, delaying Solitaire's new business opportunities, the long-term picture is still one of increased housebuilding work and a shift towards flats.

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